Networking at trade shows or conferences sucks if you’re an introvert.
Not that I’m telling any of you that are (like me) introverts something you don’t already know. Frankly I’d rather sit around with two dull sticks poking my own eyes out slowly than to suffer through networking with people I don’t know, probably won’t like, and have a terrible time making small talk with, even to save my own life.
I’ve been attending trade shows, wholesale markets, conferences, and the like for so many years now that it feels like my entire life. I put on a pretty decent show of it (mostly), and while I do end up curled up in the bed like a limp dish rag at the end of every day I’m there, I have figured out a few ways to get by (without drinking copious amounts of alcohol before 9 am) and I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you.
I am heading to San Jose this week for (wait for it!) a trade show slash conference thingy, and there will be what seems like a billion people there that I don’t know, and who, more importantly, don’t know me. Right now I’m trying to figure out if the TSA allows one to pack said pair of dull sticks in hand luggage, or if those are relegated to checked baggage only.
The joys of networking are second only to the fun of getting a root canal.
If you know me, especially if you have spent much time with me at trade shows, conferences, or god forbid, yacht club parties, you are probably laughing your ass off right now; you might even think I am telling a big fat set of lies. And you are wrong, so either stop laughing or click a link and go somewhere else. (I don’t need your ridicule, I am perfectly capable of making myself feel like a fool)
The truth of the matter is that if I have to go to a conference, show, etc alone, you would be wise to take bets on just how much time I spend outside of my hotel room networking – or how fast I’m back in the car and heading home if it’s just a quick local event. Take the under, every time, you could be a winner in Vegas on those odds.
I will make every excuse in the book not to leave my room – I’ll check email, sit around on social media, do any kind of busywork that I can possibly find. I make deals with myself – “ok, you can spend ten more minutes answering emails but then you have to leave the room” – and of course that turns into 20 more minutes or longer. There’s an entire industry that believes I can’t be on time for dinner if I have to change clothes in order to get there, and they are correct.
Sailing is different, since the boat has to leave the dock on time and I don’t really have to make small talk with the crew before we shove off; everyone has their assigned tasks and I generally manage to sneak off down the dock for a few minutes of peace and quiet before we leave finally leave the dock. By the time we get back after racing, there are racing things to talk about, and cleanup to do, so I’m not searching for things to say and feeling idiotic when I can’t find them.
You have to saddle up in order to ride out.
Over the course of many years, I have managed to develop a routine that at least forces me to get to the event, while leaving me enough room to hide in plain sight. It often appears that I am networking when I am really just ignoring most people, so I’m going to share a few highlights with you now.
The first thing, and most important in my book, is to make sure that I know at least one person there. Trust me, if I don’t, I am completely screwed, and I know it. But having that one point of contact to ‘warm up’ and get into a routine with is a key to a successful day. If it’s a show with booths, I try to make sure that it’s someone with a booth, since that creates a natural starting point, a place to stash extra gear, which, in turn, means a place to check back into when I start to get overwhelmed. Picking up more business cards or grabbing my wallet to get some lunch, means touching base again with a friendly face.
I often joke about being OCD, but I do have a bit of it, so I like to do things in a certain way. On a show floor, it means that I always (always, always, always) start on the right hand side of the floor and work my way through it from right to left. Of course I do the same thing at the art fairs, craft shows, boat shows, whatever, it’s just the path I take. I also eat my corn on the cob down the row, never around the ear, and in case you’re wondering how crazy I really am, it pains me to watch someone eat it the wrong way. You know who you are, if you are reading this.
No, really, I’ve got a plan for this.
Unless it’s a giant show, I don’t much talk to anyone on the first pass. I take stock of who is exhibiting, where they are on the map, and after I’ve been through the first time, then I know where the people I am acquainted with – well enough to make some small talk with – are going to be. I can space my second lap out based on how long I’ll be in free float without an anchor, and I stay aware of where I am on the floor, and plan my networking nuggets accordingly.
Back in the day (gads, don’t you just hate that phrase), I was part of the early internet industry, and while a vast number of bodies came and went in the business, there was a very solid core group of us who were always around, always at shows, and we spent a lot of time hanging out together (and there were copious amounts of alcohol involved, and 9 am was technically still last night) so it was possible to not even make a full lap of the show floor on any day, since I would run into people I knew and I would hang out (hide) in their booths chatting away.
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I was almost never in our booth, mostly because people I didn’t know would come around looking to talk to me, and that was pretty much torture. The opposite is now true at shows where I don’t know anyone – I spend all day chatting with people I don’t know, and it doesn’t really bother me since I’m normally repeating the same thing over and over and over, to the point that there is no thinking involved, just the scripted words that fall out of their own volition.
Another thing I find helpful these days is to have a good look at the seminar and workshops list, and to pick out at least one per day that I’ll attend. I don’t expect to learn that much, if anything, at them, since no one ever gives actual secrets away at these things, but they do offer up a quiet hour of rest and reflection and a way to gather my wits to get ready for the next round of idle chitchat with strangers.
I have been practicing introducing myself to people for the past couple of years. I realize this sounds like utter rubbish, since who in the hell can’t stick their hand out and say their own freaking name?!?! Well, I can’t do it, not very well anyway, since once we pass the “hi, my name is…” point in the conversation, I’m left struggling to figure out what to say next. Asking someone what they do when you can clearly see they are manning a booth full of paper packaging products can only make you look more stupid than you feel. That’s not networking, that’s just talk for the sake of hearing sound. If you don’t know what I’m saying, then obviously you’re not an introvert and you don’t walk around getting hit in the face with the “shit, what do I say next” stick all that often.
Pretend like you’re taking part in a staged show.
Dress for it. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan your outfits (costumes) in a manner that will work to keep people from approaching you (unless they want to compliment you on your shoes or your handbag) to make inane chitchat that causes you to wish the ground would open up and one of you would fall right into that hole. When someone says “nice shoes” you can limit the amount of conversation to exactly as much as you want – if you don’t like the looks of the person, then a quick “Nordstrom, last year, on sale, haven’t seen them since” is enough to suffice; otherwise you can fall right into chattering about how uncomfortable, hard to keep clean, difficult to pack in your hand luggage, whatever, and run with that until you’re ready to move on.
I find that people also don’t tend to notice me so much if I’m wearing an outfit that draws the eye. They’ll certainly stop and speak to me but it’s mostly superficial and I can control the pace and content of the conversation, and ergo, the networking time. This is great if I’m on booth duty. I did have some weirdo (total asshole, really) in a Vegas elevator tell me I was wearing an orange duster because I was trying to get attention one day. He was taken aback when I said, “yeah, I’m working a trade show booth, I’m supposed to attract attention (you flaming asshole) you know…”
I am also gifted with an ear for accents, and I paid attention in high school geography, so another one of my tricks is to ask people where they are from, wait for the answer (Canada, for instance), and then say, “what part?”, which usually pauses the conversation and puts the pressure on them, not me. They are too busy trying to figure out why I want to know specifics, and with any luck at all when they reply (Langley, for instance), I have some little tidbit to share that let’s them know I am not some American rube but a person who knows that Langley is a Vancouver suburb with nice parks and is an easier trip to the airport than Van city proper. Every now and then I come up empty handed, but I also don’t ask specifics if I have no actual clue about their first location (Bratislava? shit, all out on Bratislava trivia) since I’ll just end up looking like an American idiot.
Network this, pal.
Last, but not least, I have learned to simply accept the fact that there will be uncomfortable silences sometimes. And that I am not the reason (at least not to me) that those silences are uncomfortable. There are plenty of people who just cannot shut up for 45 seconds in one go, and those are the people that get spooked when you either don’t, won’t, or can’t keep up the pace with their (ridiculous mutterings) chatter. Half the time I sit there looking at them like they are animals in the zoo, and the other half I just excuse myself and leave, it all depends on what time it is and whether or not my feet are hurting from all this walking and standing.
Next time we can sit around and make fun of the fact that I am physically unable to go into a bar by myself unless I am meeting someone. I just can’t. Even at a trade show or other event. I can manage a restaurant if it’s still daylight outside, but if it’s already dark, it’s takeout time. And if the sun goes down while I’m in the restaurant alone, as soon as I’m done, I have to go home. Or at least to my hotel room. Yes, I know. Crazy.